The Excel 2007 User Experience

Finally got round to reviewing a blog post from MSDN about the User Experience design supporting Excel 2007. Of course this is all related to my recent exposure to the Microsoft UE process but I’m very interested in this post as it interrogates the charting functionality of Excel.

I have always hated the generic purples, blues and greys of Excel charts that adorn the lazy man’s presentation, pin board or meeting notes. Ignoring the power of colour in visual communication (<- excellent blog link) and the need to engage their audience, many users of the ubiquitous spreadsheet simply deployed the wizard to create a generic chart. In this regard Microsoft approached the problem with the end-users’ problem in mind: how do I create a good looking and meaningful chart? When I create charts in Excel I take a (probably excessively) long time over the style and colour to ensure it’s clear and compelling. More often than not, I’ll begin my charting process by sketching out what I want to see before tracking back to the data to work out how I need to tell the Wizard to work. I consider myself and experienced (but not expert) user of Excel but it’s clearly the users without the time and experience who pump out the sort of drab chart output I described above. So the process needs to work for power users and novices. Sometimes the best charts are mutli-type or multi-dimensional. So, for example, you use bars with lines on two axes and maybe some colouring to demonstrate some other variable. Working out this kind of stuff the first time you hit the ‘make a chart’ functionality has previously been impossible. One of the great featurettes of photo editing software has been the preview functionality of applying changes. Adding this sort of creative sandbox to the charting process enables users to tinker and play with their chart in the wizard environment without getting to the end and committing themselves to the wrong design, only to have to re-launch the wizard to amend it.

The end result for customers has been a template heavy solution that suits beginners and non-creative types but where the design crumbles is its lack of support for power users. As one commenter puts it, the support for people working with complex data has made way for “fluff to make column charts with gradient colours”. Whilst Microsoft have to cater for the large number of business users that just need to present some simple data, the fact of the matter is the tool is powerful enough to be used to analyze far more complex data sets and by ignoring these users they seem to have missed a trick. However, one final ray of light, in responding to these comments it appears Microsoft continue to listen and, where possible, they’ll begin to introduce such functionality in later releases. Too bad their UCD wasn’t quite representative enough.

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